COLORS OF US
McAvery Brothers, 1
Sandra Bunino Copyright © 2014
Michelle woke with a gasp and sat straight up in her bed. Fear slithered down her spine as she pulled the dampened sheet to her chest. It was just a dream. Just a dream. Rubbing her temples, she recalled the last time she’d had a nightmare. A month ago? Maybe two. What used to be an almost nightly occurrence dwindled to one every few months. The ever-increasing time between bad dreams meant she’d come a long way from the day she’d stepped off the bus at Penn Station and started a new life in The Big Apple.
She rubbed the knot of tension under her shoulder. “Shake it off, Willis. Everyone has nightmares once in a while,” she muttered before taking a deep breath and blowing it out slowly through her lips.
Sunlight streamed into her tiny studio, and the familiar morning noises of her neighbors wrapped around her like a warm blanket. The single mom with the stomping toddler in the apartment above her, the elderly man from down the hall who shuffled past her door on his way to the corner bakery, even the newlyweds next door who enjoyed a lusty morning quickie before heading to work—all provided a degree of comfort that everything was right in the world.
Stretching her arms, she caught her reflection in the mirror on the wall. Light shadows replaced the dark circles that had once resided under her eyes, thanks to sleep and her daily workout routine in her building’s basement. She’d hoped to exchange sessions on the worn-out treadmill with early morning runs through the streets of neighboring Tribeca, but she wasn’t ready for it yet. Baby steps.
Michelle slipped out of bed, padded across the room to her kitchenette, and ripped open a store-brand oatmeal packet. Turning the faucet knob to hot, she dumped the contents into a chipped mug and held it under the steamy water for a moment. Flakes of dried oats floated to the top as she sprinkled a packet of sugar over the meager meal. Stirring the contents together, she moved to her closet and kicked the door open. There wasn’t much to choose from in her tiny storage space. A few pairs of black pants, blouses, and sweaters from the consignment store made up her work wardrobe, yoga pants and sweatshirts were weekend clothes, and one little black dress reserved for gallery events.
The metal hangers rattled as she pulled her best pair of dress slacks and black sweater from the closet and slipped them on. A quick trip to the bathroom to brush her teeth, tie her long hair into a neat bun, and swipe on some blush and lip gloss completed her morning routine. She grabbed her backpack and rushed down two flights of stairs to her second-hand bike, which was locked to the rack in the narrow lobby. Turning the numbers to the correct combination, she freed the chain from the lock and wound it around her seat. A gust of wind ruffled a few strands of hair loose from her bun as she pushed the front door open and walked her bike down the short flight of cement stairs to the sidewalk.
Mounting her bike, she sucked the cool city air through her nose and released it slowly from her mouth. The tight muscles in her back relaxed while she pedaled, slow at first, until the light changed and the cars emptied out of the side street. She pumped her feet and rode as fast as they would take her to the end of the block, enjoying the cool air hitting her face, making her feel alive. Turning left onto busy Canal Street, she stopped pedaling, allowing the wheels to coast on their own as she threaded between cars, street carts, and the hundreds of pedestrians on Chinatown’s streets. The air nipped at her knuckles, reminding her she’d need her knit gloves and hat soon.
She wished she’d had a dollar for each time someone called her crazy for riding a bike in Manhattan. There were more deaths of city cyclists than any other accident in New York, well-meaning people said. They never understood. Being perched on the seat of her used bike meant security and control to Michelle. Every muscle in her legs flexed and contracted with the rhythm of her tires along the pavement, a feeling she never quite had while walking on the sidewalk. Mass transit was out of the question for her. She’d never forget how she’d felt like a trapped animal with nowhere to escape the
one and only time she rode the subway. Buses were out too, which was why she paid the exorbitant rent for her little Chinatown studio.
Gliding onto Mercer Street, where the smooth city asphalt turned into the original cobblestone streets, was her favorite part of the ride. Every bump she hit as she passed galleries, shops, restaurants, and lofts reminded her of how lucky she was to be living and working in the trendy art district of SoHo. Her tires bounced over the uneven road as she steered into the alley behind the gallery. Her breaks squeaked and she coasted to a stop. Swinging her leg over the bike’s frame, she leaned it on the fence while examining her overgrown container garden.
Most of the fruits and vegetables had long been picked, not that there were many in the small assortment of pots and planters Miranda allowed her to keep in the narrow alley. A single red pepper shone bright at the top of one of her staked plants. She twisted it off by the stem and dropped it into her backpack before chaining her bike to the fence. It was the last of the free, fresh additions to her plain iceberg lettuce salad lunches. Pulling the cord that hung around her neck from under her shirt, she found the key belonging to the gallery, stuck it in the old lock, and turned it until she heard a click. Pushing open the door, she entered Miranda’s office and studio.
“Morning, sunshine,” her friend Cheyenne sang as her heels clicked along the wood floor.
Michelle closed the door and smiled at her friend. “Pink, huh?” Cheyenne’s hair glowed like a cotton candy aura around her face.
Cheyenne ran her fingers through her hair. “You like?” She changed her hair color like most women changed their nail polish.
“It’s cute, but I still like the purple,” Michelle said as she dropped her backpack onto the seat of the desk chair. “I can’t believe it’s already the last Arts Walk of the season. Any action?”
“Nah, but it’s still early. With the summer tourists gone, we’ll just get the well-heeled urbanites out for a girls’ day later this afternoon after they’ve downed a few martinis.” Cheyenne tipped back her head and made a drinking gesture with an imaginary cocktail. SoHo’s Arts Walk event happened the third Thursday of each month from May through September. Art galleries opened their doors to visitors in hopes of making their somewhat-intimidating spaces more accessible to curious window shoppers. Some served refreshments, while others invited various artists to show their art and chat with potential customers.
Michelle chuckled. She knew the rich girlfriend group type well. There were three kinds of people who frequented SoHo’s galleries: tourists, who never bought anything; rich housewives from Manhattan and neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey, who acted as though they were in the market for something but rarely made purchases; and real art lovers, who artists hoped would fall in love with their work. Most of the Arts Walk crowd belonged in the first two categories, but Michelle didn’t mind. She loved the extra visibility for her own work, which hung near the window in the gallery.
Like many of her New York City peers, Michelle prayed someone would fall in love with her work, or at least like it enough to make a purchase. But unlike many of her counterparts, Michelle’s work was on display in an actual SoHo gallery. Most new artists waited years for an opportunity like it. It was sheer luck she had met Miranda Locke two years ago. Michelle had been almost out of money and had no clue what to do next. In Michelle’s eyes, Miranda took pity on her when she walked into Locke Gallery for a job, but as Miranda explained, it was Michelle’s work that won her over. “You’ll make it big one day, little one” was one of the gallery owner’s favorite sayings.
“Any word from Miranda?” Her boss was in Europe on a multicountry art tour, looking for new collections to bring to Locke Gallery. Miranda was more than Michelle’s boss. She was her friend, confidante, and the person who had made it possible for Michelle to live and work in New York doing the only thing she’d ever wanted to do. She missed chatting with Miranda on a daily basis and counted the days until her closest friend returned home.
“Not yet, but I’m sure she’ll message us later to see how the Arts Walk went.”
Michelle nodded and turned to the coffee machine perched on the table in the office. “I need coffee. I’ll brew a pot, then meet you up front.” She opened the cabinet where the coffee was kept.
“Oh damn. I made the last of it yesterday and forgot to buy more on my way in. But there were some free coffee coupons under the door this morning from that new Primo Java place that opened
down the block.” Cheyenne pointed to the orange certificates on the table. “If you feel like running over there, grab me a cup too.”
Michelle eyed the colorful slips of paper. “Hey, we can’t turn down free coffee, now, can we? Let’s get a fancy overpriced cup of something sinful. Caramel macchiato, mocha brûlée, what’s your poison?”
“Sounds like you know what you’re talking about. I’ll leave it up to you.” Cheyenne waved her hand and headed back to the main gallery, her stilettos clicking along the hardwood floor.
Michelle stuck the certificates in her pocket and followed Cheyenne to the front. “I’ll surprise you with something yummy.” Extras, like gourmet coffee drinks, weren’t in her budget, so it was a rare but appreciated treat. Pushing open the gallery door, she pulled her bun free from the elastic and shook her hair loose as the wind combed through it and whipped the ends along her shoulders. She tucked her chin to her chest and quickened her pace, thankful the coffee shop was on the corner.
The leaves on the lone tree standing tall in the patch of dirt dug into the sidewalk had already begun to change—yet another reminder summer was almost over. She swung open the coffee shop door, and the rich scent of brewed coffee wafted to her nostrils, sending her taste buds into overdrive. The small shop buzzed with activity. She scanned the gleaming floors and freshly painted walls. It seemed the neighborhood approved of the new shop. Patrons with their noses in laptops and tablets took up every available stool, sipping from plastic-lidded cardboard cups at high tables. Shuffling to the back of the line, she stood on her tiptoes and visually followed the long parade of heads in line waiting to place an order. Michelle estimated a twenty-minute wait at least, but she’d make the sacrifice for a free cup of specialty coffee.
“You would’ve thought this was the only coffee shop in the city,” a husky voice said behind her.
Michelle turned and acknowledged the voice with a casual nod while keeping her eyes averted downward. Her glance rested on a pair of black boots—scuffed and broken-in, like old friends. She had a pair just like them. Her gaze trailed to the frayed cuffs of worn jeans and roamed up denim-wrapped muscular legs.
“But I guess I shouldn’t complain, since it’s a free cup of coffee,” the graveled voice continued.
Her gaze made its journey along faded jeans to a certificate identical to the ones she had. His thumbnail caught and released the edge of the card, making a clicking noise. A hint of an intricate tattoo peeking out of his leather jacket sleeve caught her eye. “Me too.” Michelle dug the certificates out of her pocket and glanced at the voice’s owner. She held her breath for a moment as she scanned his face, starting with a firm mouth outlined with dark stubble that extended past his square jaw. Her gaze roamed to shoulder-length hair that covered one brown eye flecked with green. Realizing he was aware of her stare, she glanced away as heat crept up her neck.
“Those cookies look pretty good, though. I guess corporate America knows what they’re doing with these chain restaurants. Send local businesses a few freebies to get them into the shop, then hook them on expensive coffee and baked goods.”
Michelle gladly focused on the pastry case so she didn’t gawk at the man behind her. She spied her favorite cookie, peanut butter chocolate chip, and licked her lips.
“You work around here?” he asked.
Michelle turned to the stranger again. He closed some of the space between them, leaving her an option to step back. An option she chose not to take. He casually brushed the hair from his eye, revealing a jagged scar above his eyebrow. Her fingers itched to reach up and touch the imperfection that somehow seemed perfect on his face.
His lips curled upward. “You don’t have to tell me. Shit. I usually don’t chat up strangers.” He held up his index finger. “Correction: I usually don’t chat up strangers in a coffee line. I chat them up behind the bar. Occupational hazard.” He scrubbed his fingers over the scruff on his face.
“I work in a gallery. I take it you’re at one of the bars,” she said quietly.
“I’m at McAvery’s.” He tilted his head and smiled. “Ever go there?”
Michelle tried not to stare at the way his lips showcased straight white teeth. He could melt an icicle with his smile. She met his gaze. “No, but I ride past it on my way to work. I love the facade. It’s a great building.”
He nodded. “It’s one of the oldest bars in the city. I’m Hunter, by the way.” He placed the certificate in his left hand and offered her his other. “Ride, as in a motorcycle?”
“Michelle. And no, ride as in a bicycle.” She slipped her hand into his. The heat of his palm warmed her fingers. His sleeve rode up a corded forearm, revealing more of his tattoo before his sleeve covered it again. The colors and intricate design intrigued her, even though she wasn’t sure what it depicted.
“Looks like you’re up, Michelle. Pick your poison.” Hunter nodded to the counter.
Michelle pulled her hand away and ordered two caramel macchiato coffees with extra whipped cream.
“Anything else, miss,” asked the barista.
Her mouth watered as she glanced at the dish of peanut butter chocolate chip cookies in the pastry case and remembered her empty pockets. “Thanks, but just the coffee,” she said, pushing the certificates across the counter.
The barista turned to Hunter. “What can I get you?”
“Coffee, black, and....” He turned to Michelle. “What do you recommend?”
Michelle’s gaze darted to the plate of her favorites. “I’d get the peanut butter chocolate chip cookie.”
Hunter held up two fingers. “Two of those, please.”
Michelle collected her drinks, took a sip from one of them, and closed her eyes. The creamy foam warmed her throat.
“That good?” Hunter asked after he passed his voucher and a few dollars to the barista.
“Yeah, really good. Have a nice day.” Michelle took another sip and turned toward the door to leave.
“Hold on a sec.” He pulled one of the cookies out of the bag and handed it to Michelle. “Thanks for the recommendation.”
She shook her head. “Oh, no thanks. Save it for later. I gotta get back to work.”
He smiled. “Please take it as a thank you for keeping me company in that long line.”
Michelle looked from the cookie to his golden-honey eyes. “Thanks.” Reaching for it, her fingers brushed against his, sending a tingle to places in her that hadn’t been touched in a long time. She lingered a moment longer than she should have. Glancing at him, she saw a sly smile form on his lips. She took the treat and turned before the heat creeping up her neck became visible on her cheeks.
“See you around.” Hunter called.
Michelle pushed the door open and hoped the cool air would restrain the heat building in her belly. Heading in the direction of the gallery, she took a bite of the cookie and savored the sweet and creamy goodness dancing on her tongue. The flavors of her favorite cookie teased her taste buds as she entered the gallery.
“What are you all smiles about? And why are you all flushed?” Cheyenne asked with her hands on her hips.
“I just ate something delicious. Here, I saved you half.” She handed her the coffee cup and half the cookie.
Cheyenne took a bite and groaned. “Oh, yeah. This is good. So good. Were they giving these out too?”
“Nope. The guy I talked to while we stood in line bought a couple and gave me one.”
Cheyenne held her finger up as she chewed and swallowed. “Hold on. You met a guy?”
“I didn’t say I met a guy. You make it sound sordid,” Michelle said, swatting her friend’s arm. “But, yeah. I guess I did. His name is Hunter, and he works at McAvery’s.”
Cheyenne’s mouth dropped open. “Hunter McAvery?”
Michelle shrugged. “I guess. Why? Do you know him?” It wouldn’t surprise her if Cheyenne did. Cheyenne seemed to go out every night. Concerts, clubs, bars—you name it. If there was a party in the city, Cheyenne found it.
“Hunter and his brother, Alex, are always pictured in The Village Mouth at the best parties and club openings. Total players. In fact, I heard Miranda and Alex used to be involved for a while. I asked her about it once, but she wouldn’t talk about it.”
“You read about that in The Village Mouth, that weekly gossip rag? No wonder she wouldn’t talk about it. It’s a bunch of trash.”
Cheyenne rolled her eyes. “Did he ask you out?”
Michelle snorted, and her mind wandered to the man with well-worn boots and a eyes she could easily get lost in. “No. We just talked while waiting for our free coffees. End of story.” A group of women walked in before Cheyenne could respond. “Here’s the first group of gawkers.”
The door buzzer continued to sound all day as people entered and left the gallery. Michelle ducked into the office for a quick lunch and to check the gallery’s e-mail account when she noticed a message from Miranda.
Hi! I hope the last Arts Walk brings in some business. My cat sitter messaged me and is running late today. If it’s not too busy, would one of you run over to my apartment and feed Fuzzy for me?
Michelle smiled. Miranda loved her cat, and it killed her to leave her precious Fuzzy for a month. She tapped a message back and hit send before returning her salad back to the small refrigerator under Miranda’s desk. “Chey. Miranda needs one of us to run over and feed Fuzzy. I’ll go since it’s my lunch break.” Michelle called into the gallery as she pulled open the desk drawer and removed the spare set of keys to Miranda’s building and apartment.
“No problem. Things have quieted down here. Take your time.”
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